Internet equality and net neutrality explained in simple terms
You hear many people telling us we need to get excited about net neutrality, but beyond the buzzwords in the media, do people understand the concept?
The main issue behind net neutrality is about controlling traffic on the internet highway system. The internet service providers are commercial businesses that maintain lanes of access to the highway, but they are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
In December 2010, the Federal Communications Commission approved rules that would forbid internet service providers from blocking or slowing online services, or favor their own services at the expense of smaller rivals.
The aim of the net neutrality sounds good in concept, requiring internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally. Where it can become a conflict of interest for companies like Comcast, is that they are a major provider of content, which creates the traffic on the highway, as well as a large internet service provider, which controls the traffic on the highway.
Comcast owns numerous television networks and movie distribution companies. Comcast could give special treatment, preferred service, to the television networks and movie distribution companies that are owned by Comcast, while giving a lower quality or different class of service to companies that they do not own. For example, Comcast could say all the networks that we own get to use this lane of the highway, which is wider, and never slows down, and all the other guys must use this lane of the highway where the traffic get jammed up or slows down.
What some people fear is that a company like Comcast could create multiple lanes of the highway for internet usage, and charge different rates of service. Smaller video and audio streaming companies would be at a disadvantage because the people who use their services could be forced to pay more by their ISP to use them on these specially created lanes of the highway.
An analogy to understand net neutrality
The highway system on which we drive our cars is controlled by the government, and is one continuous system that takes us where ever we need to go. Think of the internet in the same way as you do our passenger car highway system.
Just like the passenger car highway system that has different types of vehicles, so does our internet highway system. Think of streaming video on services like NetFlix as a fleet of tractor trailers. Folks using a browser surfing the net would be passenger cars, and someone just sending emails would be like riding a motorcycle.
What if the highway system was owned by numerous corporations who charged you by where you got on the highway, that would be the on ramp that your local company maintained, and they charged you for what type of vehicle you drive, a passenger car, a motorcycle, or a tractor trailer.
Let's expand the analogy, let's say your local neighborhood decided to ban all delivery truck except for one company, or better yet lets say that any deliver truck that was not from the preferred delivery company has to pay an extra fee to enter your neighborhood. Would that be fair to the other delivery trucks?
It doesn't matter if the delivery trucks are delivering emails or web pages, it is not about what they are delivering, it is about the traffic. Trucks delivering streaming audio and video would be coming in and out of your neighbor more often than trucks delivering emails or web pages, because streaming audio and video requires more "packages" of information.
The aim of the Net Neutrality laws is to create a system where all traffic on the highway is treated equally.
What's the problem with net neutrality?
The highways are not the same in all parts of the country. What if you lived in an area where there were only two lane highways, and you drove a passenger car. Would you be bothered if everyone else on the highway was a tractor trailer?
How would you handle the complaints of the passenger car owners against the tractor trailer owners? Would you limit the amount of tractor trailer on the highway? This would be the equivalent of throttling the bandwidth of certain providers that offer streaming video.
The other approach to the problem is to force the local company to build larger highways. But this takes time, and who would pay the bill?
Like any type of public utility, there has to be some type of regulation so the companies play well together. But you need to be careful with regulation, as the concept of the internet is the ultimate in free enterprise and no government dependency.
The history behind net neutrality
The control of the use of the internet will always be a battleground in the United States. It is very similar to the history of radio, the first form of mass communications. Since the very beginning of radio, the U.S. government has tried to control radio. The U.S. Government seized control of radio for the "good of the country" during WWI and seized all amateur radio. After WWI the government created the monopoly called the "Radio Trust" to manage the use of radio. The company RCA was basically a government created monopoly for the control of radio patents.
The FCC was later created to manage radio as it became more and more commercial. Although much has changed since 1934, a lot of the argument now going on regarding net neutrality is based on the premise of the Communications Act of 1934, in that the FCC has the power to manage internet access in the same way they have been managing telephone and radio since 1934.
What started the modern day ruckus was a complaint filed against the Comcast in 2007 by some customers claiming that Comcast was interfering with their use of peer-to-peer networking applications. The FCC ruled that Comcast's method of bandwidth management breached federal policy.
The most recent ruling establishing so called net neutrality was in December 2010, the Federal Communications Commission approved rules that would forbid internet service providers from blocking or slowing online services, or favor their own services at the expense of smaller rivals. The FCC has been in control of the American telecommunications highway system for many years, and so far has be able to maintain the status quo of net neutrality,
How do you regulate chaos?
The concept on which the internet was conceived was to create a network where no single entity had complete control over it. It was designed to survive the next world war. In a world of chaos, if no one is in charge, the system, in this case the internet, is unaffected.
As the amount of traffic on this highway we call the internet continues to increase, the battle to control it and regulate heats up. The political and economic questions net neutrality raises are not always easy to answer.
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